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Sri Lanka opposition rejects bid for unity as protests continue

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Sri Lanka’s largest opposition party have rejected an invitation from the president to form a unity government, as protests continued throughout the country over its worst economic crisis in memory and deepening mistrust in his leadership.

All 26 cabinet ministers handed in their resignations on Sunday night after thousands of people defied a countrywide state of emergency and curfew and joined street protests denouncing the government.

A statement from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office on Monday said he “invites all political parties represented in the Parliament to come together to accept ministerial portfolios in order to find solutions to this national crisis”.

The president and his older brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, were continuing to hold onto power, despite their entire politically powerful family being the focus of public ire.

Two other brothers, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa and Irrigation Minister Chamal Rajapaksa, were among those who resigned, along with the prime minister’s son, Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa.

Those resignations were seen as an effort to pacify public anger at the Rajapaksas while retaining executive, defence and law-making powers in the family.

The largest opposition political party, the United People’s Force, or SJB, immediately rejected the president’s proposal of a unity government.

“The people of this country want Gotabaya and the entire Rajapaksa family to go and we can’t go against the people’s will and we can’t work alongside the corrupt,” top SJB official Ranjth Madduma Banadara told The Associated Press.

SJB has 54 lawmakers in the 225-member Parliament.

Its rejection of the president’s request is likely to result in continued uncertainty and protests, which were held throughout the country on Monday.

Police used a water cannon to disperse angry protesters who marched toward the Rajapaksa family home in southern Sri Lanka demanding that the ruling family quit.

The president, meanwhile, swore in four temporary cabinet ministers to continue the main governmental functions of foreign affairs and finance, and to help lead the ruling party’s parliamentary group.

The top official in the Central Bank, who has been accused of economic mismanagement, also resigned on Monday.

As protests grew and calls increased for him to step down, Rajapaksa assumed emergency powers by decree at midnight on Friday.

The government also declared a countrywide curfew, which was lifted Monday morning.

Sri Lankans, including professionals, students and families with small children, defied the emergency decree and curfew on Sunday to demand the president’s resignation.

“In this country it is so difficult,” said Inoma Fazil, a fashion designer who brought her 18-month-old daughter to a protest in the Colombo suburb of Rajagiriya on Sunday.

“We don’t want to leave the country and go, and we want to give our child a good future, but everyone is stealing our money. So we came here for her and the rest of the children.”

Authorities blocked access for nearly 15 hours to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp and other social media platforms that were used to organise the protests.

-AP